from Africa in Transition

South Africa’s President Zuma as Mafioso

November 1, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Critics worldwide of South African President Jacob Zuma characterize his administration as “Mafiosi” in style. South African society is characterized by gross inequality, generally with blacks on the bottom and whites on top. Ostensibly, the president’s goal is the “transformation” of this characterization of society, even if that means an assault on constitutional institutions and the rule of law. However, in cahoots with personal allies, notably the Gupta family, instead of “transformation” he is seeking to remain in power and preserve his wealth. Thus far, he has been successfully countered by the strength of South Africa’s institutions, a mobilized civil society, and the democratic faction within the African National Congress (ANC). Calls for his early recall are mounting within the ANC. A trenchant exposition of this “Mafioso” perspective is provided by Richard Poplak, in the Daily Maverick.

Zuma and his political allies certainly have been trying to undermine the independence of the treasury, which has in general followed the policies of the “Washington Consensus” with the goal of economic growth rather than redistribution from the rich to the poor. The focus of this effort has been the removal of the well-regarded Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. The head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), a Zuma ally, indicted Gordhan on corruption charges which were so flimsy as to be clearly politically motivated. A consequence of this assault on the treasury was a rapid fall in the value of the Rand and a rallying of support for Gordhan.

However, on October 31, the head of NPA announced that he was withdrawing the charges in the face of overwhelming support for Gordhan from within the ANC and civil society and the near certainty that the courts would throw out the case. The Rand promptly strengthened.

The treasury has received good marks from the international financial community. However, with the country’s slow recovery from the 2008 recession and low commodity prices, international financial agencies have raised the possibility of reducing South African bonds to “junk” status. If that happens in December, Zuma may reshuffle his cabinet and thereby remove Gordhan. On the other hand, “junk” status may increase pressure within the ANC to remove Zuma.

In the meantime, this episode has probably further weakened Zuma politically, not least within the ANC.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

South Africa

Corruption

Political Movements

Heads of State and Government

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